Running and throwing the fade route against press coverage

This past weekend saw that old classic, the fade route, used to win a couple huge games in the SEC: The game winner in the LSU-Florida game was a fade (the second try), and South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffrey caught several big time fade passes against formerly #1 Alabama.


As simple as it seems — “Run out there and I’ll throw it up” — it’s a surprisingly subtle play, and is often taught improperly. Steve Spurrier, of course, is one of the masters of the fade, and this is not the first time LSU has won a big game on a well-thrown fade.

The first problem is the name, “fade.” This conjures up the idea that the receiver’s job is to release off the ball and immediately start “fading” to the sideline, where the quarterback has to throw it to an increasingly vanishing spot between the defender and the sideline. This is wrong.

1. The route, at least from the receiver’s perspective, should be thought of as an almost totally vertical route. Against press man coverage, he should get the defender’s feet moving; the goal is not to get “around” the defender but to get through him, by making the defender move and then having the receiver run on a path immediately past him. This isn’t always possible, and the fade is an outside release play, but that should be the goal every time it is called. Too often young receivers want to outside release, get jammed, and can barely get off the line of scrimmage or get run basically out of bounds.

2. Second, the receiver must leave at least six to seven yards between him and the sidelines. Some teach five yards but I prefer seven, because it leaves more margin for error. A simple way to think about it is to tell the receiver to get no wider than a yard outside the numbers (i.e. the big numbers on the field between the hashmarks and the sideline).

3. Third, consistent with the above two points, the receiver should actually try to lean into the defender as he bursts upfield. As I’ve said previously:

[O]ne imperative technique is to learn to “lean into” the defense back at the top of the routes. If you’re running an out against press man, once you hit about 10-12 yards you should be “leaning into” the defensive back before you break and separate away. Somewhat counterintuitively, on some of these routes you do want to be near the defender before breaking away at the last minute, and never too early. But this lean will get the defender’s center of gravity and momentum going in the wrong direction. Mike Leach is famous for this coaching point.

This is key, and it must precede any “fade” aspect to the play. By getting a good vertical release and leaning into the defender, the receiver can keep the necessary space between him and the sideline for the ball to be thrown.

4. The “fade” portion of the play comes in once the ball has been thrown, but not before. The receiver will “fade” to the ball, and catch it at its highest point. Great receivers know how to use their body to keep the defender on the inside while they reach to the outside to snag the ball.

5. The quarterback’s assignment is simple but the techniques take a lot of time to master. The fade is thrown off a three-step drop (or one step from shotgun) to a spot 18-22 yards downfield, and approximately five-to-six yards from the sideline. Obviously, one of the big mistakes you see is the quarterback who throws this pass out of bounds; it’s amazing how frequent that happens. The difficult comes with properly extending the arm, getting that medium arc down (it’s not a bullet and it isn’t a bomb throw), right to the outside shoulder. One common way to practice this is to put a trash can at 20 yards deep and tell the quarterback to drop the ball in the trash can (which you can’t do unless you have the right arc on the throw), and you can even simulate a free safety hustling to get over there to make sure there isn’t too much arc.

And that’s basically it — now go on the field and practice this a few thousand times. Two final points. One, this article is meant to deal with the fade against press man. The technique is a little different if your goal is throw the fade between the corner and safety against Cover 2. For a good example of that kind of throw (against some very bad cornerback play), see another game winning fade, this time from the Arkansas-Georgia game.

Second, I’ve left off an adjustment that has become a play unto itself, the back-shoulder fade. It deserves its own article, but I’ll say that I like the rule of thumb for the quarterback to only throw it if the defensive back’s head is turned, and, if so, to throw the ball directly at the back of his head. This way the defender should overrun the throw and the receiver can adjust, which, you know, I’ve seen before:

Finally, as a bonus, a few pointers on the fade from Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, though he left being as big as he is out of his list of pointers.

  • David

    Pet peeve time: you don’t catch the ball at the ball’s highest point unless the ball is still rising when you catch it. You want to catch the ball at YOUR highest point. Everybody makes this mistake, and it’s just poorly thought out.

  • http://smartfootball.com Chris

    Would it make you feel better if people said “catch the ball at the highest [possible] point”? I think that’s implicit in the sentence; it might be jargon-y but it’s how it’s always been said, and it’s one of those instances where the coach-speak I think doesn’t hurt the meaning.

  • Matt

    Would you outside release the fade vs. cover 2?

  • http://smartfootball.com Chris

    Matt: Yes. Most teams say it is a mandatory outside release against Cover 2, but I’m not that extreme. (Neither is Spurrier.) That said, you better do your best to get the outside release, and release inside the Cover 2 corner only if he is so determined not to let you outside release that he is out of position.

  • Caleb

    Chris,
    Great stuff. Could you include in an article in the recent future the technique/coaching points of stalk blocking for a wide receiver? Love this website

  • Alan

    What is the best way for a DB to defend a fade route?

  • CoachTF

    Out of the Tony Franklin system, this is a “Go Route,” but like Chris says, going up and GETTING the ball at it’s highest point is a big deal. It becomes a mentality/attitude thing for the receiver, as in “this ball is mine, not yours” as opposed to waiting for the ball to come to him. As far as the outside release goes, it is a mandatory outside release, however, a receiver cannot spend all day working to get outside. Take the release you’re given and work back over the numbers. The QB owns the area from the bottom of the numbers to the sideline. In this area, the receiver must then “fade” away from the DB after the lean and flipper. Against Cover 2, there can be very little “hump” on the ball, so that the receiver can make the catch between corner and safety.

    We play a lot of man coverage with some type of help over the top, so I tell my DBs they will be in trail position when defending this route. They must be in-phase with the receiver at all times. Their and hand are on that receiver. When they feel the WR “fade,” they must continue to close ground. I’ve had DBs that were able to take over the route by actually getting a step on the fade route. Yeah, the back shoulder fade is there, but that’s a difficult throw to make. When the ball is in the air and the DB is in trail, they must turn TO the WR. At this point, I’ll take a batted ball or a sure tackle. If the DB has taken the route over, they can turn into the QB to find the ball, but they must be aware of the back shoulder throw..

  • Michael

    I’d also be interested to know what the best defense against this is. Some teams are all too predictable at using this tactic.

    Since it is a throw off a short drop to a point, presumably you could interrupt the timing of this play by jamming the receiver at the line? If he gets past the defender, it is pretty much all over when the receiver is 6’5″.

  • http://smartfootball.com Chris

    CoachTF: Great stuff. Thanks. Any other good coaching points on the go versus the back shoulder, and also if there are other preferred Franklin routes against press man with blitz? (Don’t have to give away the farm…) I always liked the corner route in the mesh play, especially around the goal line.

    Alan, Michael: The fade works best against press coverage or in the hole against Cover 2. If you play soft coverage the fade isn’t very good — but you give up underneath stuff. If you want to play tight coverage against the fade you can’t do much better than Saban:

    http://smartfootball.com/defense/nick-saban-schools-you-on-how-to-play-pass-coverage

  • CoachTF

    Thanks, Chris. Great site. I’m here almost everyday and I’ve learned a lot from you, so thank you.

    Mesh is a great play regardless of coverage, in my opinion.

    Against press man coverage, we well run a “Cross” with the outside receiver and tell him to get underneath the corner and climb over the top of the #2 defender. The QB potentially has a window to throw to between the #2 and #3 defenders, but this ball has to hum. If the ball hasn’t been thrown in this window, the #1 WR must see if the MOF is open or closed. If open, climb. If closed, continue across the field. #2 WR or inside WR, will run a wheel route. If he can out-run the defender, he must continue his track up the bottom of the #’s. If he can’t, he’s got to stick it and work back to the ball.

    I like this combination on the boundary side because the timing is so much better.

  • http://sports.asimweb.org asimperson

    As a GT fan, I was wondering if Calvin Johnson would get a mention as read the article. “The fade to Calvin” was seemingly the basis of the Georgia Tech offense for his entire college career. No surprise that he knows how to run it.

  • Blythe Petralba

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